When I first read a headline saying that the city of Rocklin, California was considering banning residents from smoking outside of their homes on their own property, I was outraged. Even though I acknowledge the dangers of smoking, the idea of a city government telling a resident that they couldn't choose to smoke on their own porch, in their own driveway, or in their own backyard seemed patently absurd to me.
It didn't seem too absurd to believe, however, especially about a city in California, which is notorious for city governments that pass "nanny state" regulations to meddle in matters like whether or not a fast food chain can put toys in meals that consumers willingly elect to purchase for their children.
But when I followed the link to the CBS Sacramento article bearing the headline, I discovered a discrepancy between the text of the article and the words of the reporter in the video at the top of it. One said that Rocklin City Manager Rick Horst was seriously considering the proposal to ban residents from smoking outside their own homes, while the other said that Horst told CBS that the proposal was not being seriously considered.
That was when I did what any independent-minded American can easily do in an age of freely-available information: I used a search engine to find the City of Rocklin's website, pulled my cellphone out of my pocket, and dialed the city office's phone number. Since the article I read gave two contradictory accounts, I decided I was just going to ask which one was correct, and that's what I did. I told an office manager about the article I had read, let her know that I write for The Independent Voter Network, and asked whether she or the city manager could set the record straight for me on the smoking ban proposal. She said she'd have him call me as soon as he was back in the office later that day.
In total it took less than five minutes, including waiting through the automated phone menu. Easy. In 2012, we don't have to let giant media companies filter information for us. We can get to it ourselves easily, conveniently, and at little or no cost. That's part of what we're trying to build here at The Independent Voter Network-- a grassroots network of independent-minded and vigilant citizens who understand that they have the power to really understand what's happening in the world around them-- and even influence it for the better.
A couple hours later Rocklin City Manager Rick Horst called me back and answered my questions. He even shot me an email with a written statement. Here's what it said, reiterating the things he told me on the phone:
"The stories within the Placer Herald and on Fox News contain errors. We did have a citizen step forward at our last City Council meeting and ask for an ordinance to ban outdoor smoking. We did refer the citizen to the California Air Resources Board. At a later meeting with the citizen, I informed him that the City of Rocklin would not be pursuing this matter. It is unfortunate that Fox News has elected to carry the story without any verification from the City. There is no consideration of the issue and no study planned. Our core mission is directed at the provision of effective public safety, maintenance of our road systems, economic development, parks, recreation, and related matters."
I was shocked to learn that even with its massive operating budget and resources, Fox News couldn't bother to have an intern do a quick Google search for a phone number and make a five minute phone call to investigate the story further, confirm its veracity, and learn any other potentially newsworthy details before running it. The City of Rocklin was very polite, prompt, and happy to talk with me and tell their story. The entire experience left me wondering just how many other government officials wish they could tell their story without it being distorted, misreported, or spun by the time it got to a media source's audience.
So let me conclude by offering a standing invitation to government officials in California: if you don't believe your actions or words are being reported fairly or accurately, here's my email address. Whether we agree with all your views or not, you have a voice at The Independent Voter Network --no spin, no filtering, no misreporting. This is a new kind of media and a new kind of conversation.